The Jan. 6 committee accused Trump of inciting an insurrection. He should be charged for it

Los Angeles Times editorial board (TNS)

The decision of the House Jan. 6 committee to recommend that the Justice Department pursue potential criminal charges against Donald J. Trump is not binding on the department, which in any case is already investigating “whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election” under the leadership of a special counsel.

Still, the panel’s recommendation Monday that the department pursue four potential charges against Trump — including inciting, aiding or giving aid and comfort to an insurrection — is a powerful statement. Equally important, it is based on a voluminous and damning record amassed in hearings at which some of the most damaging witnesses were Trump’s own appointees.

For anyone not blinded by partisanship or in thrall to the cult of Trump, the facts assembled by the panel, and contained in an executive summary of its report released on Monday, are shocking and shameful. They fully justify the dramatic step of a criminal referral of a former president.

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Jan. 6 committee is right to defend the rule of law

Read the House Jan. 6 committee's summary report

An image of President Donald Trump is displayed on a screen as the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol conducts its final hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Yes, such a recommendation is revolutionary, but as Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee chairman, aptly explained, “We’ve never had a president of the United States stir up a violent attempt to block the transfer of power.”

To its credit, the panel — launched after Senate Republicans stymied the creation of an independent commission to investigate the insurrection — viewed its mandate as more than a forensic investigation of the violent events of a uniquely dark day in American history. Horrific as it was, the violence on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a prolonged and multifaceted effort by Trump and his enablers to seize on spurious claims of voter fraud to maintain Trump’s hold on the White House.

Led by Thompson and Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a Republican with impeccable conservative credentials, the panel rightly placed the riot at the Capitol and Trump’s dereliction of duty on that day in that broader context. In doing so it compiled a historical record that will be of inestimable value to prosecutors as well as the public.

The scheme to overturn the election collapsed when Vice President Mike Pence rejected the idea that he could refuse to count electoral votes fairly won by President-elect Joe Biden. But it was a sprawling conspiracy and, the committee persuasively suggests, a criminal one.

The breadth of the campaign to overturn the 2020 election is reflected in the charges the committee asked the Justice Department to consider. The committee filed criminal referrals for Trump on three charges in addition to insurrection: obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to make a false statement and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The insurrection charge is the most dramatic. The House in 2021 impeached Trump, accusing him of “incitement of insurrection” (the Senate failed to convict). A criminal incitement conviction might be harder to secure because Trump may claim that his statements were protected by the 1st Amendment and that he never advocated violence.

Still, the committee has established a powerful case for pursuing prosecution on that and the other charges. The Justice Department already has successfully prosecuted foot soldiers in the Trump-orchestrated war on democracy. As we observed in an earlier editorial, it’s critical that the ringleader who exhorted his followers to march to the Capitol to “take back our country” also be held accountable.

Whatever the outcome of any criminal prosecution, the Jan. 6 committee irrefutably established, as Cheney eloquently put it, that Trump “is “unfit for any office.” Whatever happens in court, Trump has disqualified himself from any sane or patriotic voter’s consideration.